Is this the will of God?
That seems to be today’s essential—if hard and to some degree unanswerable—question. We could well declare that this story does not go how we want it to, so it has to raise the issue of willpower, of whether Jesus wanted this to happen. Did he know he was going to get himself killed? It almost fits with the parental critique, that rhetorical question for playing in the street, “Do you want to get run over?!” Jesus must’ve known he was poking the bear, provoking an overpowering reaction. So was it a suicide mission? A pyrrhic victory? Losing the battle to win the war, to misappropriate violent language? We may count this a tragedy of an innocent victim, but others saw Jesus as a threat.
More still: was it a divine purpose? Did God plan on or intend this? We heard Jesus’ petition, “Not my will but yours be done,” a dangerous prayer. Isaiah’s poem of the Suffering Servant is also often paired with this day, in part declaring, “It was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain” (53:10).
Yet if we want to claim this was against the will of God, that God is anti-death, then we have to understand that means God didn’t get God’s way. Pontius Pilate got his way. Today, it would seem his will was more powerful than God’s. The Roman Empire and their violent version of peace, through oppression and extortion—or bread and circuses—were, at best, diversions distracting from the larger freedom and wellbeing of the reign of God. Or perhaps we place blame with the selfish religious authorities getting what they wanted, getting rid of the Messiah figure, the popular hero. In today’s terminology, yet another triumph for the 1%.
That also confronts with us these other passion stories (of Gandhi, Oscar Romero, MLK, Berta Cáceres, Stormi, Bree Newsome, and Larycia Hawkins). If it’s not God’s will for such modern saints to die, to be mocked, to be sacrificed, then what? We needs better than an inspiring educational moment of Jesus showing us to give it our all, to love with everything we’ve got, to stand up for what we believe in to the last. We can never fully say that a death is “worth it,” so Jesus and these others must be more than martyred for the cause. We need the arc of history to bend better. It’s not enough to say that God stands on our side and can be encouraged in following what we’ve discerned to be the will of God.
And what about undeserved death and senseless suffering that isn’t trying to unmask injustice? What about Brussels or Syria? What about mothers who mourn? What about the poem’s dead whales and native trees and emaciated people and all the bodies of this world? Or what about Lynne Schultz in the hospital this week, who said Holy Week has more meaning because of her struggles there, wondering if God had forsaken her. What does this will of God mean for those who have been hurting and excluded or facing death if this isn’t directly addressing the problem to redeem the situation? What about relationships that fall apart? What when we’re simply trying to live our lives how we think we ought and it doesn’t go right? Why are things this way? Why death? Why losses? Why victims? Why persistent injustice? Why not salvation? Why aren’t things better? Why do we still have so much hard work in front of us, so much to lament? Where is God in all of this? Is God silent?
If so, maybe this is the most foolish of times to open my mouth, that the time to speak is Sunday, when our lips are loosed for Alleluias and we get the come-from-behind victory. Yet today, God, too, weeps. God grieves. Too much does not go how God wants it to. Too much is sin. Too much is hatred. Too much interrupts God’s striving for justice, for wellbeing, for life. In addressing it, our God dies.
With all that, it is not just silence, but also a day of hard words, especially from Jesus:
“Father, forgive them”—as if fraudly, immoral incompetence were excusable and, in the end, redeemable.
“Don’t weep for me; weep for yourselves”—as if we’d prefer not even to try engaging these difficult times, would wish to avoid it all and just save ourselves.
And, finally, “your will be done”—a dangerous prayer, because the will of God may lead us to confront death and all its agents, and that will lead us out of death into life.
(John13:1-17, 31b-25 )
There is so much to sort through in Holy Week: the confusing move from festival parade to betrayal, or going through death to new life as the darn-near inexplicable mystery of our faith. That—plus love!—is just plain lot to absorb, with so much central to us in this week.
It’s interesting to look at it by proportions: the Gospel of Luke has more than 5 of 24 chapters set in this week. For Matthew it’s 8 of 28. Nearly 40% of Mark’s story is told between Palm Sunday and Easter morning. The Gospel of John starts the story of Jesus “in the beginning,” at the birth of creation, and yet almost half the book takes place in one week, with about six chapters spent on this Maundy Thursday evening alone.
Now, we’ve tried to fit a lot for you into this evening: remembering that little children lead us. We’ve eaten together, the night of the Last Supper as an obvious time to share a meal. We told the Passover story, since Jesus was sharing that special meal and redefining it. But we also notice how that further increases the complexity; the Exodus meal provides the defining narrative of the Hebrew scriptures, but tonight becomes a background footnote for our gathering.
So how do we consider all of this? How do we fit it in? Can we begin to comprehend so much that is deep, complex, challenging, rewarding? Probably the most apparent answer is no, we don’t. We can’t. We could consider much more on freedom from slavery and ancient festivals and the practice of footwashing and political dynamics of Jesus’ arrest in the garden—which may or may not be more worthwhile than discussing menu options of communion bread or historical dilemmas of determining if we’re doing it right and who’s in. Overall there’s just lots to grasp.
Similar to the observance that the ancient creeds spend a lot of time on controversial details and miss out on the main point of what Jesus was up to, you came here this evening not to debate and deliberate details, not to learn history or try to repeat the past.
You’re here tonight for love, to be loved and striving to love in return. You’re here because we always need practice at this, never have it resolved permanently or perfectly, because it is the hardest, most complex thing in the world, even if it can feel so natural.
In this way, it’s no surprise that attendance dwindled since Sunday—either contrasting the crowds for the palm parade with Jesus only having his close disciples around him on Thursday, or comparing our fun and vibrant protest service with this group tonight. It’s not about being entertained or getting caught up in the hysteria; you understand being commanded to love means taking community seriously, is about acting as a neighbor, a citizen of earth, about engaging your gifts, taking a risk, asking what’s best for others.
Recognizing that loving can be exhausting and frustrating and sometimes draining of life, you also gather here to be loved, with Jesus who gives himself to you whole-heartedly, with all his life and all he has. We may question if that can fit in one night, or one Holy Week, or even in one life. But sharing it at this service, absorbing it with a bite of bread is a start.
Hymn: Will You Let Me Be Your Servant (ELW 659)
sermon for 5th Sunday in Lent (John12:1-8 Philippians3:4b-14)
Last week, we talked about Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal son—maybe talked too much about it! Rest assured, there’s only one sermon today, though you may count it almost as an 8th Prodigal sermon.
By having this Gospel reading back-to-back with last week’s, the similarities are striking. This reading today seems almost like it could be John’s version of, or response to, the prodigal parable. The center of both of these stories is an extravagant action, an unwarranted luxury, reckless devotion. Last week, it was the story of a father welcoming home his wayward son. This week, it is Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, dumping out a ridiculous amount of perfume on Jesus.
Then there is also the skeptical or resistant response, viewing the central behavior as misplaced. Last week, the elder son was in that role of refusing to join the party and today it is one of Jesus’ disciples and closest followers, Judas, who scoffs at the extravagant, even wasteful, devotion.
We’ll focus on the most surprising change between these mirrored stories, the direction of devotion. We usually hear the parable as being about God’s amazing grace and unconditional love and abundant hospitality. In a reversal, here this woman is doing it for God. Now, generally we should hold the extravagance side-by-side and not change the values. As we said last week, we’re apt to evaluate that younger son who runs away as corrupt but simply identify the father as generous, when we could more equally see them both as risky.
Well, today we should make sure we’re not downgrading or writing off Mary’s behavior for being a woman. We shouldn’t see the father as a doting parent, maybe a kindly old man but instead claim Mary’s actions are scandalous, perhaps relying on Judas’s grim appraisal of her. Please notice that she’s not labeled a prostitute or a sinner; that’s not in this story (as if that would allow us to write her off or downgrade her to begin with!). While her wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair is an incredibly intimate deed, we should correspondingly note that the old father inappropriately went running down the driveway to kiss his son. So the distinction in these stories has nothing to do with one being a respectable male and the other a woman of questionable repute.
The difference, then, is the direction of devotion. Almost by default, we hear the parable of the Prodigal Son as a message about God’s forgiveness and welcome for sinners. More even than the love of a parent, we receive it as God the Father whose love really is inexhaustible and eternal. Mary’s action today, then, reverses that direction. If that was God’s love for us, this might be about our love for God.
But that’s a hard category, and in the end I’m not sure it leads us to where we want to be. Last week we cited the small catechism on God’s generosity, which goes on to say that “for all this, I owe it to God to thank, praise, serve, and obey.” It’s a pretty easy view that we ought to return to God gratitude of heart and mind and voice, that we should bring a reciprocal love to God with all our soul’s life.
We could read that in this passage today, that Mary is returning to Jesus and finding a way to pay back what was given to her. There’s a lot of current thought on the nature of gifts, whether they can ever be truly free or if, of necessity, it creates a demand in us, that we indeed “owe” something back. This is easy enough to see in our own lives, like when someone brings a present to your birthday party. Or the obligation in thank you notes or a return invitation for dinner or even—worst of all—being emotionally in debt.
For Mary we could see this in a much larger sense. It mentions being at the table together with Lazarus. The amazing thing is that just a few verses before, Lazarus was dead, rotting in the crypt. Yet because of Jesus’ compassion and love and because of his power over death and his insistence on life, Mary had her brother back, the restoration of the community of family, the wholeness of life as it should be, a glimpse of resurrection. Mary had reason to be enormously grateful to Jesus. So as extravagant as her gift was, it wasn’t out of line.
There’s all kind of precedent for that in our lives, too. Thinking about health and encountering death, paralleling the situation of Lazarus and Mary’s family, we might not be surprised at health care costs and exorbitant bills. When life is on the line, we may find the extravagant expense actually worth it.
Or we could take this as a stewardship story. Then I could tell you that your giving to church is important. What you return as gifts from God to be shared here are crucial (including for my salary!). We might see it historically in ostentatious architecture of glamorous churches representing faith. But overall I don’t believe this story about Mary pouring perfume on Jesus’ feet is just encouraging you to fill your offerings with greater recompense.
In the end, while it doesn’t seem so astonishingly peculiar that God would welcome a sinner like you—the compassion of the prodigal story we may be eager to claim for ourselves—still, this next direction must seem out of place, well more than you’d lavish as your faithful response.
Indeed, instead of this being about what you owe to God or how you repay a gift, I believe it is rather ridiculous. It’s an action that makes no sense. We begin to see that by having to agree with Judas: This is a foolish waste! The value of that perfume—costing a year’s worth of wages!—could most certainly have been better-used. Caring for those in need is one obvious alternative. Even if Judas were going to steal it, though, he likely would’ve found a better use than what Mary did.
If there’s any question how odd Mary’s action is, we might notice that for all of our cosmetics these days, we still don’t rub deodorant on our feet, much less even spritz them with perfume. It’s meant to be absurd. One person compared it to showing up at a dinner for Mother Teresa with an $800 bottle of wine; it would just be so apparently wrong, unfitting for her goals, and also, then, against the goals and ministry of Jesus.
I’d contend that even his line about “the poor you’ll always have with you, but not me” rightly highlights or intensifies the silliness, how fleeting it is, without accomplishing anything lasting. Then he says she’s anointing him before his death for burial. That alone is shocking. Anointing is a big word for our faith. Messiah and Christ are the Hebrew and Greek words for Anointed. This practice—originally about being chosen by God as a priest or prophet or rule—has come for us to be centrally identified in Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One.
Yet he isn’t chosen to reign over us, to drive out the oppressive empire, to inaugurate a new hierarchy of holiness at the temple. Instead, as Mary understands, Jesus was going to die. Talk about putting your money on a losing horse! Not only is Jesus not going to come out ahead; he’s not going to cross the finish line. Six days before Passover, when he’ll be arrested and crucified, Mary gives him more honor than would be due anybody else. Not just a last chance to express herself before he’s gone, she is showing that in spite of his death or exactly through it, he is indeed the Messiah, the Christ, the chosen one Anointed to do God’s work.
Yet again, somehow this one killed for insurrection, a threat to the political establishment, abandoned and betrayed by his friends, tortured and shamed—this ultimate loser still has the greatest value. As Paul says today, all other gains are a loss. Everything else by comparison is “rubbish.” It’s one of my favorite Greek words: skubala. It’s Greek vulgarity, literally meaning “crap.” Anything else not only pales next to Jesus; it stinks to high heaven. The only thing that matters is the surpassing value of suffering with this dead loser.
But how do you explain that? We’d have to admit, it is ridiculous to put your faith in this wantonly foolish prodigal Jesus. With Mary, you go looking for God in a guy with smelly feet. You risk this intimacy and make yourself vulnerable. It’s impractical that two millennia later you’re still gathering here to keep following him, that you continue in this silly devotion. It’s ludicrous that you’d give of your income, still trying to further his work, to keep this church of his going. Even to keep giving to the poor ignores doing the obvious thing of keeping it for yourself. You persist in striving after justice that’s a long way off. You dare to hope beyond death. You somehow see the world as it isn’t. Clearly, you’re not following cultural trends. It’s weird that you like singing together. Given how much else you have going on, it’s even peculiar that you take the time to be here today. You spend your time on plenty of other good things, and you could even find better ways to waste your time than being here.
And yet…here you are. Gathered around the anointed one with smelly feet who just managed to die. Here you are, still at this ridiculous practice, an extravagant waste.
I can’t explain it; you’ll have to let your faith do that.
WELCOME & SERMON #1 (Luke 15:1-2)
Now for something completely different.
There’s so much in the parable of the Prodigal Son that we’re going to break it apart. Maybe when it comes around again in three years I’ll take it as a whole ball of wax. But today it seems worth living into the various aspects and attitudes. Plus, there’s the added benefit of being able to tell your family and friends, “I got to hear 7 sermons this week!” Who wouldn’t want to be able to claim that? *
This first piece we might take as a welcome to worship and an introduction to this experience. As you arrive here, you may identify with the sinners, having been beratedly told or having your own suspicious feeling that all is not right in your life. Or you may be more like the grumblers, who claim to have it all figured out in doing the right thing, in spite of everyone else.
Either way, what Jesus has to say today in this gathering is for you. Though we each have our own details and stories and abilities and short-comings, we also arrive in the same boat, turning again to the waters of baptism, expecting, needing a word of grace.
SERMON #2 (Luke 15:3, 11b-16)
It’s a nice Kyrie in ELW setting 8, isn’t it? Besides the catchy tune, it also helps expand our view. The typical versions still make reference to our relationships with God and with each other and for ourselves. Even that most simple phrase, “Kyrie eleison—Lord, have mercy” could capture all of our need. Yet this version intentionally expands our vision to our homes and justice issues, and work and play, and this gathering and the whole world, and all of it commended to God in prayer.
Briefly, I might jump in over my head on conversations on mercy. What we sang sure doesn’t seem like begging to an angry God who is apt to punish or going to withhold goodness. This isn’t mercy as relenting from meting out a harsh guilty verdict. Maybe the reverse, this mercy is apparent in its French origin, merci, reminding us of the gratitude for God having offered so much to us and continuing to strive for our wellbeing. It is not fearsome but a blessed thing to be at the mercy of God, mercy that matches other definitions of compassion for the unfortunate and seeking to alleviate distress. This points us to the beginning of Jesus’ parable. *
The younger son, figuring he was under his own power and at the mercy of nobody but himself, soon found out how much could go wrong—in squandering money and a catastrophic famine and lack of community support and even being stuck with the pigs, having to deal with what was both illegal and offensive to him.
For that wandering son, please understand; Jesus does not claim that if you stay at home close to God nothing will go wrong. Just the reverse, hearing this part of the reading still in the gathering portion of our service and along with that Kyrie, we understand how much we’ve seen go wrong. So we come here again to keep asking for protection and relief and guidance and blessing, in all the moments of our lives and for so much need in our world. And in spite of everything else, we continue to expect good from God. For that, let us pray to the Lord.
SERMON #3 (Luke 15:17-20a)
* Depending on your perspective, you might find the son in this part of the parable to be conniving or humbly contrite or just desperate. Is he strategizing tactics to fill his belly? If so, we could observe desperation can drive either toward ingenuity or deceitful acts. Or does he simply recognize that life was better and could be again, even if to a limited degree? That’s not to be slighted. We might, for example, consider how those who have been incarcerated can be reintegrated into society. Things may never be how they once were, but they could be better.
We should also admit, though, that this son’s remorse and sorrow could well be honest. Whether or not the relationship with his father can be re-established, there is some sense of longing in this son, to make amends and, at the very least, to confess. That is worded well in Psalm 32 that we just read, that sometimes we need to speak it aloud, to open ourselves up and disclose the hardship, just because it makes us suffer too much to keep it bottled up inside.
In a grander way, it’s what we hear from 2nd Corinthians (5:16-21), stunningly emphatic on reconciliation. This is the next part in the yearning for restored and whole relationships. And the template here is that our human point of view doesn’t cut it. How we relate is not based on past hurts or on future potential. Trespasses cannot count against us, it says. We are called to see each other through the eyes of Jesus, or as the body of Christ, as a new creation, though we still sure look and feel like our old disappointing selves.
The reading says that for our sake, Jesus became sin so that we might become God’s righteousness. Within the story, that says Jesus took the place of that lost and forsaken son. He identified with him, though it’s hard for us to imagine Jesus as so offensive, as a desperate loser, a hungry philanderer, judged to be worthless. Yet in exchange for that shame—simply taking it away—Jesus offers a new beginning where it is all right and even that outcast lowlife is entrusted at the center of God’s operations as an ambassador, continuing to work for reconciliation.
CHILDREN’S MESSAGE/SERMON #4 (Luke 15:20b)
Well, kids, I saved what I think is the best part of this whole story for you, because this is what I hope for you from your parents and families, and from this congregation and me at church, and in all kinds of places in life. And, most importantly, this is also what God always promises for you. *
The son had done something wrong, but his dad didn’t wait for him to say he was sorry. The son didn’t have to do anything at all. His dad was just plain excited for him and loved him and wanted to give him a great big hug. God doesn’t love you only because you do good things. God isn’t proud of you only if you stop doing bad things. God loves you just because you exists and God is so excited to be around you and to hold onto you always.
At this part of the service with sermons, we’re often looking for words to explain God or to try to teach. But before any of our words, God rushes up to say, “I love you!”
And God also trusts you to share that love with others. So go and give somebody a hug, maybe especially someone who doesn’t expect it.
SERMON #5 (Luke 15:21-24)
*Amazing Grace places these words on the son’s lips, from his experience: “I once was lost but now am found.” The father sees it more strongly still: “This son of mine was dead and is alive again.” It’s even more than recovery; this is a resurrection.
As we turn toward the peace and toward offering, we could see in this sense how we celebrate each other and how we offer our best gifts. Indeed, the amazing word of “grace” has its root in the Greek “charis.” Like “charismatic charity,” it is about gifts we eagerly give for each other. God continues to lavish goodness on you—calf and robe and ring, clothing and rich food and identity—strictly as a gift, in the old words of the catechism “out of pure fatherly goodness, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all.”
That, in turn, is what we also offer for the sake of each other. We share our gifts. We extend what has been offered to us. We practice being the new creations and ambassadors of reconciliation. We share peace. We offer love. We give away what has been given to us. Not because we need to, but because we can. And, God knows, we’re worth it!
SERMON #6 (Luke 15:25-30)
This sermon piece may seem like an interruption, and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be, exactly what happens with the older son at this point in the story. The celebrations are interrupted and questioned and resisted. *
As we turn toward this table and the supper where we gladly proclaim that “all are welcome,” we have to realize that the gracious and flagrant welcome has to offend, just as surely as a closed table bound by restrictions and rules would offend. As much as it is good news that you are welcome, you are invited, that this meal is for you, we have to realize there are some who wouldn’t want somebody like you here, somebody your age or level of understanding, or with your doubts or your theology, or your clothes or education, or your background from this week or from earlier in life, or just because you don’t seem to have done much to be very deserving.
And yet here is set a lavish feast, precisely and explicitly given “for you.” The richest meal and most amazing table you could possibly be invited to, not because the abundance of fancy feast, but because the nourishment here is God’s own blessing, the life of Jesus, the presence of the Holy Spirit for you and soon in you.
This meal may be served to people with whom you wouldn’t necessarily choose to relate. It may be served by hands that don’t seem qualified or worthy or preferable. The question from the parable is whether you’ll accept this great invitation, and if the joy you’re invited to share is worth it, or whether you’ll dig in your heels, wanting to besmirch or degrade others, and in pouting miss out.
The fatted calf has been killed. The Lamb of God has given himself for you and for all. All are welcome; are you coming?
BLESSING/SERMON #7 (Luke 15:31-32)
Here’s the end. * What strikes me this week is the great risk. Not that I’m still trying to preach in these last moments, but how risky this was for the father. In regaining one son who had been lost for dead, did he manage to lose the other one anyway? Did he anticipate that possibility? He also seems to be losing out on the hard worker in order welcome back the problem child, offending his honor student by honoring the delinquent.
It’s a whole story of risk. We tend to slander the young son for the risk he took in leaving and then overlook the risk he was weighing in coming home. There’s always a risk in the lavish party, the feast, in what we choose to celebrate and where we give our resources. The younger son we may call wasteful; the father we’d more likely term extravagant, or at least not stingy. That’s constantly true in his devotion; it’s risky. And the older son’s resistance to living that way, his refusal to join the celebration also has risks. His father has promised him everything, but will he so firmly turn away that he’ll give up on it all and become as lost as his brother had been?
That may be the parting question today. You’ve risked being here, giving up yourself to the mercy of God, coming to celebrate a banquet that welcomes offenders and the snooty and you and any who’ll enjoy it. As you prepare to go back into the week of encountering all kinds of Kyrie moments, of squandering and wrongs done and difficulties and longing so desperately for things to go right, it’s in the reconciliation and the love and peace that you have to offer, to risk, and to receive. It’s in putting God’s love first and foremost in our attitudes and relationships, in seeing faces as God’s good new creation, as celebrated just because that’s the kind of God we have.
Having been again reminded and attuned to that, having received again that assurance in worship, going now back into the world for which God risks God’s self so extravagantly and so desperately, you have eyes to see and a life to risk with it as well.